Dallas Mavericks: There’s nothing particularly good or bad about how this team plays, but they do have an exceptional talent base doing it. Putting the type of money forward that they do ($86 million payroll) should yield results, and when part of what it yields is the pairing of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, your team is bound to win some games.
Their Offensive Rating is slightly above the league average (109.2 to 107.6); it’s helped by Kidd’s and back-up PG’s JJ Barea’s abilities to not turn the ball over, but hindered by PF Nowitzki often spotting up far from the hoop, taking him out of rebounding position and making the team a poor offensive rebounding club. Their Defensive Rating is slightly below the league average (106.3 to 107.6), chiefly due to using a roster full of talented players all capable of keeping opponents out of the interior as much as possible. They force longer shots away from the rim more than most other teams, which is about what it takes to keep opposing FG% low and opponents off the free throw line.
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Even with great regular-season records over the past decade and a trip to the Finals in 2006 (should have won, got jobbed), Dallas has won only one playoff series in the past four series. I don’t see what’s going to a) keep them from posing another 50-55 wins season, or b) truly allow them to challenge a team like the Lakers in the West. The squad behind Nowitzki and Kidds is just above-average-ish enough while not role-player-y enough to guarantee both outcomes.
Could Make the Playoffs (In Order of Likelihood)
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs have seemed the same for so long, it’s tough to write anything new that most fans don’t already know. So let’s look at what might be new with the team this year since you know the rest. 1) DeJuan Blair is the new starting C (did start 23 games last year as a rookie), which means more rebounding and hustle plays but less interior defense against iso post-ups.
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Also, look for his occasional 20-points-on-9-shots type of games. 2) If you didn’t notice, Tim Duncan’s defense is no longer other-wordly. His ability to single-handedly neutralize pick-and-rolls, which was once the unsung anchor of this defense, has obviously slipped. This allows more opponents to end up moving toward the hoop with the ball in their hands. 3) Rookie SG’s James Anderson and Gary Neal will certainly add some instant offense off the bench. Neal is an incredible long-range shooter, so his 3-year overseas journey to the NBA should make a nice halftime piece if he plays enough to drop double-digit point totals a few times. 4) The addition of C Tiago Splitter was supposed to be the most meaningful overseas acquisitions of the year (and he was thought to be the new starting center), but he’s missed the entire preseason with a calf injury. When he’ll be back and in what capacity is yet to be seen.
Houston Rockets: Yao Ming will be back in some sort of abbreviated role with the team, but I’m not holding my breath for his influence to push the Rockets over the playoffs-bubble hump. As with almost every other position, the center spot will be held down by smart players who know their role and aren’t looking for individual glory; in this case, Chuck Hayes and Brad Miller.
The team mostly looks the same (although I’m thinking rookie F Patrick Patterson will turn out to be quite valuable by the end of the year) and will play the same, which is a team-oriented, individual-stats-neglecting, hustle and bang style (see also: Hayes, Miller, Luis Scola, Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks, Chase Budinger). Scola looked great at the FIBA World’s and could be even better in his 4th NBA season. The team is deep in smarts but low in high-end talent (Yao doesn’t play enough and Kevin Martin is an unapologetic gunslinger – neither counts as high-end talent at this point), which is a good recipe for a playoff contender but little else.
Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis made a surprise appearance in the Western playoffs picture last year before they faded away by April. Fans of the team pair that mid-season hope with the Grizzlies’ 7-0 preseason record as a harbinger of good things to come in 2010-11. Not so fast. A great majority of their key players have already plateaued and aren’t going to suddenly push this team forward. This group includes starters PG Mike Conley, SG O.J. Mayo, SF Rudy Gay, and PF Zach Randolph. A solid group of contributors, but they all are what they are (which got them close, but not into, the playoffs last season). Any improvements that will push this team higher have to come from elsewhere.
Elsewhere we have pound-and-ground starting C Marc Gasol, who enters his third season after showing massive improvement in his second, back-up C Hasheem Thabeet, and back-up SF/SG Sam Young. All three are improving, which hopefully can do enough for the ailing defense to tighten up Memphis’ race for a playoff spot (finished 10 games back of the #8 seed last year). The one item that could potentially make this club take a step back is Randolph; he’s destroyed many franchises before with his attitude and legal issues, so it’s not out of the question.
New Orleans Hornets: If Chris Paul is healthy for 82 games, they have a shot. He’s easily the best PG in the league (fast and athletic, great shooter, amazing passer, great defender, great character), and that’s often enough to sneak a bad team into the playoffs. Unfortunately, he plays in the West, and things are a little more difficult out there right now. Big men David West and Emeka Okafor aren’t exactly the best 2-3 punch in the league, let alone the division, and newbies Tervor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, and Jerryd Bayless all offer some helpful tools, but none has ever shown enough of a total package in consistent, meaningful minutes to make you think this team is finally complete. SG Marcus Thornton obviously shows promise (averaged 20 ppg over last three months of rookie season, plus he shot 37% 3FG for the year). If team’s rosters were baseball pitches, NO’s fastball would be phenomenal, all the curves and sliders and off-speed stuff is streaky at best, made to look better when opponents focus too much on trying to catch up to the fastball. Good luck CP3.
Top 5 Players
F/C: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
F: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
F: Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies (if his attitude doesn’t go wacko)
G: Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks
G: Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
Possible Award Candidates
Chris Paul finished second and fifth in the MVP voting in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and as the best PG in the league, he should always have a chance. Nowitzki scores a lot for a great team and has won it before, so he’s always a top-10 candidate. The Spurs would be nowhere without Tim Duncan, so he should get more MVP consideration than he has been recently, but playing consistent and not filling highlight reels doesn’t really do it anymore. Rookie C Tiago Splitter joins San Antonio after a splendid European career, so he has to be considered a candidate for the Rookie of the Year award, although realistically it will take an act of god to wrestle it away from Blake Griffin or John Wall (Please God, no more injuries to Griffin).
Paul and Duncan are still two of the best defenders in the league, so they should get some votes for Defensive Player of the Year. Gregg Popovich might be the best coach in the league, but he won’t win Coach of the Year again as long as Duncan is playing and GM R.C. Buford keeps surrounding him with embarrassing riches of B+ talent. I think Memphis’ Lionel Hollins is far underrated and deserves a lot more credit than he’s gotten for the Grizzlies’ improvement considering how many shoot-first players reside on that club.
Previous divisional previews:
- Eastern Conference, Atlantic
- Eastern Conference, Southeast
- Eastern Conference, Central
- Western Conference, Pacific